229 – Conscious Communcation

Conscious Communication

An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.

— Epictetus

Have you ever thought about how often we have judgments in our language? Are you even aware of how often we communicate our opinions and feelings about others? What if we could remove judgments from our language? Today I want to talk about ways that we can make our language more clear, and increase our ability to communicate non-judgmentally with others.

A few months ago I picked up a book called Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenburg. The idea behind nonviolent communication, or alternatively what the author calls conscious communication is that there are many aspects of how we speak, and the way we hear things that cloud communication with others.

There are many aspects of nonviolent communication, but the part that I want to focus on in the podcast is one idea in particular. That idea is if we could strip out the judgments from our communication, then we could communicate more clearly with each other. Doing so would allow us to deal with issues for what they are rather than all the judgments about the issues, which often become a distraction or even a roadblock in communicating with others.

The process of communicating this way is not an easy because unconsciously we make all kinds of judgments in our language. Most of those judgments are what the author calls moralistic judgments, which are judgements about the rightness or wrongness of other according to our values. Each of us make value judgements about what principles we hold and how we think the world could best be served. When we make moralistic judgments we are comparing others to our ideal of what we think they should be or how they should act.

For example, if someone cuts us off in traffic, “they are an idiot”. If we think someone isn’t working hard enough, “they’re lazy”. If we don’t like the way someone dresses, “they’re dressed inappropriately”. All day long we are passing judgments on others, and ourselves, and we’re usually not all that aware that we’re doing it, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the stronger we feel about something, the more intense our judgment is about the idea.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.


When we focus too much on classifying how good or bad or to what level others or ourselves are in relation to what we think they should be, we’re not paying attention to what other person, or ourselves might need. For example, if our significant other is wanting more affection from us than what we we’re giving, we might judge them as being too needy or clingy. We might argue with them to stop being so clingy or make it mean that we’re not good enough for them, rather than noticing they have some need that isn’t being fulfilled.

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.

—Carl Jung

So how can we get better about communicating is ways that carry less judgment? As with most things, it takes awareness. Until we are aware that we’re doing this every day, it makes it challenging to change our behavior. The better we get at noticing when we’re passing judgement, the more progress we can make.

What it really comes down to is how well we can observe something or someone without evaluating. A way to practice this is to take whatever it is we’re saying and distill it to just the facts. If we only say the things in it that are verifiable or provable then we are already making a big step towards conscious communication.

In the book there is a great example where the author is working with a group of teachers who are frustrated with the principle because they feel he talks too much and overruns conversations. He asks the teachers what the issue is, and their answers include statements like, “He has a big mouth”, “He talks too much”, and “He thinks only he has anything worth saying”. All of these statements are judgements or inferences about the principle and not evaluations. It took some work to help these teachers come up with a list of specific behaviors and the outcomes of those behaviors, such as because of his extra story telling, meetings almost always ran over their time limit. Learning to separate our judgements from observations is not an easy thing to do, but pays huge dividends in communicating with others.

A simple exercise that can help us be more aware of the judgments we make is to practice separating observations from judgments. For example, if we meet someone, rather than thinking about how attractive or unattractive they are or how humorous or boring they are, we can practice just noticing factual things about them first. We can notice the color of their eyes, how tall they are, or the length of their hair. After that, we can pay attention to the opinions that we form about them, such as, “They have a pleasant speaking voice”, “They’re too tall or short”, or “They have great taste in clothes”.

Another key part of conscious communication is that we own our judgments, opinions, and feelings about a situation. If we think someone is lazy, rather than declaring that they are lazy, we can simply say, “In my opinion I think that someone that works less than 60 hours a week is lazy.” It is still a judgment, but we are owning that we are making a judgment. If we have a friend that dominates conversations, we might say, “I feel frustrated when talking with you when you interrupt me and don’t let me finish my thoughts.”

Let’s a talk a little more about value judgments. Value judgments in and of themselves are not bad. We each have principles and ideals that are important to us. We may value honesty or kindness or compassion or a host of other ideals that help us decide how we want to show up in the world. When expressing these ideals we also need to be careful not to attach judgments to them. When we express our values, we can do so in a way that expresses our feelings about it, without passing judgments on others.

For example, if we think that honesty is a very important principle, we might say, “I value honesty and people who are dishonest are awful and should be fed to a pack of coyotes.”, which obviously has a strong judgment attached to it. Instead we could say, “I value honesty, and I understand how it can be hard to do, so appreciate it when others are honest with me.”

The last bit of advice I can offer on this topic is to try and be more compassionate with your communication. Before you say something to someone, think about how it might be received. Think about how you might receive it. Is it something that would upset you if your friend or partner said it to you? Is there a way that you can remove any judgements and just state the facts? Are you saying this because you are trying to get the other person to change? The closer you can get to just stating the facts, taking out judgments, and not placing blame or having expectations, the easier it will be to work on the root of the issue, and avoid getting into an argument about how you think they are right or wrong.

One of the most important skills that we can develop in our lives is communicating with other people, and nonviolent communication is a process that can help communicate more clearly. The more conscious we become about how we’re communicating, the better we can connect with others. By learning how to separate our judgements and opinions from our observations we more likely to have our concerns received better, as well as keep the conversation focused on the real issue, and not our opinions about the issue.

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